The Washington Post: “Perhaps tired of winning, the United States falls in World Happiness rankings – again”

by Joseph McKeown


The United States has fallen in the rankings of the World Happiness Report for the second year in a row. Currently, the US is ranked eighteenth out of more than 150 countries, making it the worst ranking since the annual report began being published in 2012. The report, published by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), an initiative of the United Nations, measures levels of happiness and changes in happiness globally. This year, along with the usual rankings, the report focuses on migration within and between countries. “The most striking finding is the extent to which happiness of immigrants matches the locally born population,” John Helliwell, a University of British Columbia economist who co-edited the report, tells the Washington Post. “The happiest countries in the world also have the happiest immigrants in the world.”

The 2018 report was published ahead of the United Nations’ International Day of Happiness and ranks Finland as the happiest country, closely followed by Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Switzerland. The bottom countries on the list includes Burundi, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan, all of which have experienced instability and conflict. The statisticians behind the report weigh six variables: GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, social freedom, generosity, and absence of corruption. The data is complied using the Gallup World Poll that measures happiness using the “Cantril Ladder,” which asks people to envision a ladder with their “best possible life” being a 10 on the top and their worst possible life a 0. One of the reasons experts study happiness is because it can be a good gauge of a nation’s progress and help produce better public policy.

The report looks at not only the happiness of immigrants and their host communities, but also the communities these immigrants have left behind, which it found was generally positive despite the separation. As mentioned, the most striking part of the report is how the ten happiest countries in the overall rankings also fill ten of the top eleven spots in the ranking of immigrant happiness. Finland is at the top of both rankings in this report, with both the happiest immigrants and the happiest general population. The findings show how the happiness of immigrants depends predominantly on the quality of life where they now live. The report says: “Immigrant happiness, like that of the locally born, depends on a range of features of the social fabric, extending far beyond the higher incomes traditionally thought to inspire and reward migration.” Importantly, the report notes: “The countries with the happiest immigrants are not the richest countries, but instead the countries with a more balanced set of social and institutional supports for better lives.” 

Americans have experienced eroding happiness for years, with obesity, substance abuse, and depression as potential causes that offset happiness despite strong economic growth in the country since 1972, the report says. Additionally, the report notes: “Social support networks in the US have weakened over time; perceptions of corruption in government and business have risen over time; and confidence in public institutions has waned.” The report recommends that Americans look to Latin America, where despite general lack of trust in government institutions and the fact that many immigrate out of the region, the importance of social factors greatly contribute to happiness of the general population as well as for migrants. “[T]he source of the extra Latin American happiness lies in the remarkable warmth and strength of family bonds, coupled with the greater importance that Latin Americans attach to social life in general, and especially to the family," the report says. Last year's report noted that America’s declining happiness is “a social crisis, not an economic crisis,” with one of the report’s authors writing: “Almost all of the policy discourse in Washington DC centers on naive attempts to raise the economic growth rate, as if a higher growth rate would somehow heal the deepening divisions and angst in American society. This kind of growth-only agenda is doubly wrong-headed.”